Several months ago, it struck me that my knowledge of The Twilight Zone — which is surely one of the most influential science fiction shows in television history — may in fact be inadequate. Indeed, it’s impossible to read SF TV criticism today without bumping into comparisons to this classic series. Yet I’ve always known it more by reputation than direct experience, so I decided to bone up, and while it’s not quite compelling enough to truly marathon, I’ve been working my way gradually through it with multiple mini-binges. By turns, the effort has proven exciting, disappointing, and illuminating.
The Twilight Zone is an anthology show, each installment focusing on a different character in a different scenario, always with a fantastic or science fictional premise. The episodes often have an eerie, unsettling ambience, and frequently end with a chilling twist. The series launched way back in 1959, and it’s impossible to view it outside that historical context. On the content level, for example, the seasoned SF fan in me couldn’t help but notice the simplistic and unsophisticated manner in which the science fictional ideas are often handled. Alas, the concepts that were mindblowing in 1959 have rather lost their capacity for surprise and wonder since then. It takes a certain effort of will, therefore, to place yourself in the era for which the stories were intended, an appreciate them for the ground they broke at the time. Then there’s the production level, which the film buff in me enjoyed immensely, as the Hollywood stars of yesteryear — some at the tail ends of their careers, others getting an early break — randomly turn up for a spin on the show’s spooky dance floor. With production values often one step removed from those of a stage play, the special effects and filmmaking techniques are quite limited and rudimentary — and yet, ironically, the limits of the medium are often stretched to powerful effect, as creative sound and visual design elevate the material and contribute to the atmosphere. Finally there’s the level of sociopolitical subtext, which is where The Twilight Zone has aged the most poorly. The show very much feels like the product of the Mad Men era, rampant with malecentric story-telling and frightfully casual misogyny. It’s a fascinating, and at times shockingly disappointing, window onto the norms of an earlier era.
What this all adds up to, then, is a series that is often difficult to appreciate by modern standards, but just as often impressive when examined as an important ancestor to modern television. The quality rollercoasters wildly. In order to get to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a chilling Red Scare metaphor about an alien invasion, you have to suffer through “The Lonely,” in which a prisoner on an asteroid is given a lifelike female robot companion. To enjoy the creepy skiffy fable of “People Are Alike All Over,” you have to put up with the silly, male wish-fulfillment fantasy of “A World of His Own.” And then there are the episodes that give you both ends of the spectrum at once, like the famous “Time Enough at Last,” a nuclear paranoia tale that serves up an unnerving, radiated apocalypse, but not before painting its protagonist with unconsciously misogynystic chracteristics that make him difficult to care about.
For all its problems, the show’s reputation for mystique is completely warranted. A major factor contributing to this is the high quality of the narration, which is consistent throughout. For all his flaws, Rod Serling can write and deliver eloquent turns of phrase with the best of them, and his stylized intros and outros are almost uniformly brilliant — both at establishing the series’ dark tone, and distilling each episode’s message with insight that manages to be simultaneously penetrating and elliptical. Even when the episodes don’t work, Serling’s little monologues often elevate the experience. This lends a certain charm to the simple mysteries of “A Stop at Willoughby” (in which James Daly escapes the daily rat-race by visiting a town that doesn’t exist on his commute home) or “The Hitch-Hiker” (in which Vera Miles’ cross-country drive is haunted by a creepy drifter who continually outruns her progress). And it adds a playful frame to light-hearted fare like “Mr. Bevis,” about a peculiar, hard-luck fellow (Orson Bean) whose guardian angels delivers an unexpected gift. Then there are episodes that just aim for good old-fashioned creepout effects, like “The After Hours,” which sends the bemused Anne Francis to an otherworldly level of a department store that nobody else can visit.
By and large, I suspect to the modern viewer The Twilight Zone will fall down a little more frequently than it holds up. But even with its problems and dated aspects, one can see how it’s an essential step in the development of the medium. Revisiting it is a worthwhile exercise, rewarding particularly for its stand-out moments and episodes.